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Monday, June 22, 2015

Static Thoughts - Star Trek: Voyager invented modern sitcom casting

Recently it was announced that Paramount has been considering bringing Star Trek back to TV, with a major focus on a proposed new show called Star Trek Uncharted.  I’m a huge Star Trek fan so I figured this was as good an opportunity as any to discuss my favorite iteration of the show and easily the most underrated: Star Trek Voyager.  If you don’t know Star Trek: Voyager was the 4th iteration of the series, set within the same time period as Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.  The focus of the show was on the titular Voyager ship, a new class of starship tasked with taking out a deadly cell of a major terrorist group in the Star Trek universe called the Marquis.  Their operation goes sideways when both Voyager and the Marquis vessel they were hunting get pulled to the other side of the galaxy.  Now stranded as far from home as possible both Marquis and Federation crews have to work together if they’re to have any hope of getting back to Earth.  

Over all I get why a lot of people don’t care for Star Trek: Voyager.  Of all the good Trek shows it took the longest to really hit its stride and even then the show always had a much more sitcom aesthetic to it than Next Generation or Deep Space 9.  For me though that sitcom approach is what made me like the show so much and what made me realize Star Trek: Voyager essentially invented the modern sitcom casting breakdown.  Basically modern sitcoms have jettisoned the standard set-up of dopey dad, saintly mom, smart kid, bad kid as the overarching character sheet to work off of.  Now a days the more generally accepted character array, as according to a very useful ‘Today’s Topic’ from is rooted in trends of decreasing social skills and cynicism, and the Voyager crew is chalked full of that.  That kind of harsh edge to the characters is actually why I like Star Trek: Voyager as much as I do, these characters are the most flawed in all of Star Trek and as a result they end up some of the most interesting.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence their character archetypes have ended up seeping into a whole generation of sitcoms like 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Rec., VEEP, Arrested Development, and Brooklyn 99.  With all that said, let’s look at the character archetypes Star Trek: Voyager helped pioneer. 

Captain Janeway – 
Crazy Queen

Like Parks & Rec.’s Leslie Knope or even 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon Captain Janeway is the glue that holds her entire ship of crazy bastards together, in particular by being an even crazier bastard than everyone else she has to work with.  She’s constantly throwing herself head first into any given problem and works off the assumption there is no issue she can’t solve, a belief that often proves completely accurate.  Probably the best analogy though is Selena Myer from HBO’s VEEP, the political madwoman who holds her whole office together by being the only one more ruthless, self obsessed, and unhinged than everyone around her.  

First Officer Chakotay – 
Den Mother

This is an often-underrated character but a very necessary one all the same.  The Den Mother’s job is to act both as a figure of authority but also someone who can be swept up in the antics and adventures of the people they’re meant to be keeping in check.  The best example of this is Terry Jeffords from Brooklyn 99, the hardworking precinct sergeant that forever walks the line between keeping order for the Captain and goofing around with the squad.  Chakotay is the king of this as well, specifically because of his split loyalty.  Before joining Voyager he was the captain of the Marquis ship so not only is he inclined to engage with the crew on their own level it’s almost his default state.  

Lieutenant Tom Paris – 
Lovable Manchild

Tom Paris himself is probably the perfect embodiment of this trope, the underemployed and underachieving son of an admiral with an anti-authority streak and a tendency toward immaturity that’s far less charming than the writers seem to think.  Sometimes this track will yield an Andy Dwyer of Parks & Rec. type where the young at heart nature of the character is genuinely endearing but more often than not you end up with someone like VEEP’s Dan Eagan or Community’s Jeff Winger.  As I said not a terrible character by any means, just one that needs careful handling to be actually funny instead of just a chauvinistic jerk. 

Ensign Harry Kim – 
Dedicated Workaholic

Another often underappreciated character type is the workaholic so dedicated to their job it borders on the deranged.  Harry Kim compounds this fact by being the most basic character possibly ever put to fiction but he’s ultimately cut from the same cloth as Community’s Annie or the best example of this: Amy Santiago from Brooklyn 99.  You can also see elements of this trope in folks like George Michael from Arrested Development and Ben from Parks & Rec., people who with a singular goal who can never catch a break in that department.  Harry Kim lives at the center of this mesh, forever sublimating his failed relationships into hard work and making comedy gold as he does it. 

The Doctor – 
Self-Obsessed Ass

This might seem like a shock to fellow Voyager fans but I actually think the ships emergency medical hologram nicknamed The Doctor is the mot self-obsessed and narcissistic character in the show, and probably all of Star Trek.  None of this is to say that’s a bad thing, in fact the Doctor’s intense egotism and near megalomania are what make him such a delight and probably why there are so many similar characters.  John Rolfio on Parks & Rec., Chang on Community, G.O.B. from Arrested Development, Jonah Ryan on VEEP, and countless others, pretty much any character who acts solely on impulse and thinks their inherent awesomeness makes up for any problems they might incur. 

Neelix pt1. – 
Blissfully Unaware

Neelix is actually my favorite character on Voyager.  He’s basically a jack-of-all-trades space local the ship picked up as a cook in the first episode who never ended up moving on.  What makes him so great and what’s been so often copied over from him is that despite the fact his life eventually falls apart into near utter shambles he is constantly, amazingly, purely happy.  Probably the best example of cheeriness bordering on the insane is Buster from Arrested Development but Chad Traeger from Parks & Rec. comes pretty close.  The most egregious trickle down of the Neelix archetype however is Charles Boyle from Brooklyn 99, an obliviously happy and mildly effeminate character that’s defined by his culinary skill.  He’s basically just Neelix as a police officer. 

Neelix pt2. – Punching Bag

A punching bag character is someone who always ends up with the worst conceivable outcome of any situation.  However the important distinction that identifies a punching bag is that the person in no way deserves the various horrible misfortunes that befall them.  That’s part of what makes Neelix perfect for this role, he’s constantly having his life fall apart before his eyes through no fault of his own.  It’s the same problem that befalls Kevin from The Office, Meg Griffin from Family Guy, or Jerry Gurgich from Parks & Rec.  It’s also somewhat distracting how the unfortunate recipient of all this misfortunate and schadenfreude is usually just guilty of the crime of being overweight. 

7 of 9/Tuvok – Mono Emotion

This particular character type goes all the way back to the beginnings of Star Trek with Mr. Spock but Voyager is where they really doubled down on the idea.  In particular this is a character whose defined by having no visible change in their emotions, exemplified perfectly in the emotionless Vulcan security chief Tuvok and the stoic and hyper-competent 7 of 9.  This character type is only now making its way into sitcoms but its hit with a vengeance, Brooklyn 99 has both the stoic Captain Holt and the continuously angry Rosa Diaz, Parks & Rec. has a similar dynamic in Ron Swanson and April Ludgate, and it can be found a third time in HBO’s VEEP with Kent Davison and Sue Wilson. 

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